Tree Fruit: The Climate Of Weather And Politics

Tree Fruit: The Climate Of Weather And Politics

Jim McFersonWeather and politics — often painful topics, but hasn’t it seemed worse recently?


The precipitation and temperature extremes throughout our tree fruit growing regions have been stressful on people and plants both. Bloom and fruit set is erratic in California, and growers north and east are justifiably trepidatious. It’s been snowing too much in all the wrong places and stayed way too cold in most.

Equally stressful has been the tortured, twisted, tragicomic spectacle of our Congress attempting to put together a trillion dollar Farm Bill, a year late and a few billion dollars short.

Congress Comes Through
However, just as surely as spring ushers in a new season and offers renewed hope in our orchards, a few determined politicians offered an alternative to the crazy Congressional climate, even though it appears to be only a brief reprieve. At least they got some of the ag part right!

Historically the five-year cycle of the Farm Bill has produced a leviathan dominated by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and various commodity crop programs. Specialty crop issues are easily contained within the “other” category constituting less than 1% of the $956 billion spending amount.

Enormous credit is due Senator Debbie Stabenow and Representative Frank Lucas, chairs of the Senate and House Ag Committees, respectively, for their successful effort to craft legislation, cajole colleagues, and emerge with a bill that by and large represents the kind of compromise that the public expects of Congress.

Yet, even though joined in their leadership by the Ag Committees’ Republican and Democratic ranking members, Pat Roberts and Collin Peterson, they all came close to failing, with close votes in both the Senate and House.

The Bill’s Benefits For You
But enough whining. I am starting to sound like a fruit grower. Fact is, the Agricultural Act of 2014 is now law.

Even better, the Farm Bill has been widely praised among specialty crop organizations. The umbrella group uniting our disparate specialty crop industries is the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA), who pronounced this “the most significant government investment ever into the competitiveness of specialty crop producers and industry members, with support for research, pest and disease preventions, state block grants, child nutrition, trade, and more.”

As an unabashed partisan of research and Extension, I was particularly pleased the law was signed by President Obama at a ceremony on the campus of Michigan State University, a land grant university justly renowned for its specialty crop prowess. While clearly an homage to Sen. Stabenow, an MSU grad, this gesture reinforced the steadily increasing stature that specialty crops and research now enjoy within the USDA and the Farm Bill process.

Two Farm Bills ago, we were still considered “minor crops.” Now, we can celebrate this Farm Bill’s increase of more than 50% in funding directed towards specialty crops in trade, nutrition, crop insurance, and research and Extension.

The Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) will now double its funding, to $80 million annually. Of equal importance, the SCRI is now part of the baseline budget, and will not face a repeat of the legislative limbo which suspended its operations and disrupted dozens of critically important research projects in the past two years.

Similarly, the National Clean Plant Network, an essential bulwark to ensure the phytosanitary health of clonally propagated specialty crops like apples, cherries, grapes, hops, peaches and pears, is placed into a secure funding position at $5 million annually.

While these two programs are of special significance to specialty crop stakeholders and their research communities, others received equally favorable consideration, including the Specialty Crops Block Grant Program and Technical Assistance to Specialty Crops.

The list could go on, along with important details within each of these important programs, but the point is the same. Kind of like this winter, it was not pretty, but things move on. Congress got a Farm Bill done.

Washington Recognizes The Value Of Our Industry
Federal investment in specialty crops continues its positive trajectory. Research and Extension is receiving increased support. Our President shows up at a land grant university to sign a bill that further consolidates the vision the SCFBA has presented. This is an unmitigated triumph.

Adding on, initiatives within tree fruit producing states manifest the increasing energy and drive of specialty crop sectors to support and provide a legacy for research and Extension activities. A recent column in this publication by Desmond Layne nicely summarizes a couple recent examples: an endowment campaign between the Washington tree fruit industry and Washington State University, as well as an initiative to create a Michigan Tree Fruit Commission dedicating grower self-assessments to support experiment station activities is another. To read more, click here.

Over the past couple Farm Bills, specialty crop stakeholders have been effective in pressing policymakers as well as federal and state agencies to recognize our value and economic importance in communities across the country, along with the significant contributions our products make to human health and well-being. The bowl of apples prominently displayed on photographs from the White House is one more sign of our collective success.

No time to rest, however. The implementation of the legislation offers the next opportunity for specialty crop industries to provide input and work to make best use of taxpayer dollars. Nationally, our specialty crops have never been more organized or impactful. State by state, similar progress is apparent.

Whether it is the winter of 2013-14 or the current Congress, weather and politics both bring challenges to agriculture. I believe U.S. specialty crop industries can deal with both.